I know this for sure: when the guardians of my destiny — Coyote, Jaguar, Killdeer — play poker with my life, the Queen of Hearts is wild.
Seven years ago, I rolled a car high in the La Sal Mountains of Utah. I went through the windshield. As I lay shivering in the rain late that night, more injured than I knew, I thought I might die in the cold. Yet I had the distinct sense that Coyote had drawn the wild card. He let me live.
I came out of that accident with the clear sense that I had two missions left in life: to love and be loved, and to serve the Earth. Gradually the boundaries between the two have dissolved until only one is left: love. I don't mean sticky, romantic love, but wild, crazy, unpredictable love — love with claws and jaws.
To say that the long night in the rain made me an environmentalist would make a tidy story, but it would not be true. I had already been working for the Sierra Club for eight years. It would make an even better story to say that I immediately learned what the Queen of Hearts had to teach me and made love my modus operandi. But that would not be true either.
Radioactive waste, not love, made me an environmentalist. It still raises my ire — still haunts me, like other people's bad childhoods haunt them. And the twin motifs woven through my early career were anger and power.
I was working as an archaeologist in southern Colorado in the early 1980s when James Watt was appointed Secretary of the Interior. Early in his tenure he floated a proposal to put radioactive waste near a national monument in Utah. I wanted to say no. But how, exactly, should I do that? I was a young Mennonite archaeologist without a political bone in my body, and we Mennonites are pacifists, not prone to confronting the powerful. So I took a job that would help me figure out how to say no to bad ideas like radioactive waste. I went to work for the Sierra Club in Chicago.
In 1990, while at the Sierra Club, I was appointed to a government commission that examined the suitability of a radioactive waste site in Illinois. After months of hearings, we rejected the site.
Perhaps it was a result of the contentiousness of that siting process, or perhaps it was because I became a lawyer (a disability acquired late in life). Whatever the cause, I shed my Mennonite quietude and developed an adversarial stance on the environment. For many years I was a feisty, combative eco-warrior, asked far too often to speak and write about radioactive waste, this dirtiest of environmental contaminants.
But after my accident in the La Sal Mountains, I began to learn how debilitating it could be to maintain that adversarial posture, with its gritted teeth and clenched fists. I discovered that when I presumed someone was an enemy, I could not hear that person, and my anger blocked them from hearing me. Somehow anger — even righteous indignation — was limiting my work as an environmentalist.
Still, it seemed like a whim when, on the eve of 1998, I decided, as a spiritual practice, to give up enemies. I was not aware at the time that I was following up on my epiphany about love in the La Sal Mountains. Rather, I was coming from a different direction: a new understanding of power.
My Oxford Dictionary defines power as the ability to act or affect something strongly. But three linked conversations had led me to a different understanding of what power might be, and consequently, how different my politics and work could be.
The first conversation was initiated by Paul Orum, an environmental colleague. He asked a group of us to think about a time when we had possessed power. My knee-jerk response was to say that power was what Newt Gingrich — then Republican Speaker of the House — had, and I didn't want it.
But really, I did. I wanted power to stop bad things. I wanted power to protect pelican babies, whales, the native prairie. I wanted power to restore the Earth to health.
The second conversation occurred later that same week. My friend David Kline, an Amish farmer in Ohio, called me and told me that he had petted an owl while walking in the woods near his house. I asked him what the owl had gotten out of it. David laughed but didn't have an answer to my irreverent question.
While I was mulling over these ideas, a Navaho friend of mine, a young medicine man, called. I asked him, “What is power?” This was not an idle question, because his eldest son had just been killed in a car accident. In response to his son's death he had given up his ceremonial work because he felt powerless.
He answered without hesitating. Power, he said, is when you have the ability to speak with all the animals and plants and they have the willingness to speak to you.
The proverbial light bulb went on in my head: Power is communion. At that moment I knew what the owl had gotten out of being petted — communion with David.
Back to the Oxford Dictionary, which defines communion as sharing or holding in common, participation, community, participation in the sacraments, common action. I mean communion in all of these senses when I speak of this kind of power. As a Mennonite, I believe that I cannot be fully who I am outside of a community — of humans, plants, animals, microbes. This commitment is as fundamental to my faith as my belief that violence has no role in the human world.
Communion is the most formidable power we can use in our work on environmental health: communion with each other, communion with the natural world. People in isolation from other humans and other animals and trees suffer deteriorating mental health, because health itself is dependent on communion.
Communion is the power of love, the opposite of war, which is the power of coercion. Writer Susan Griffin says, “To be in communion is to have a way we can live out our collective consciousness together.”
The idea of power as communion is woven from two separate strands: respect and humility. Respect tells us how to treat the Other. Humility tells us how to regard ourselves. Together they help us coexist with all the Beings in a world of uncertainty and mystery. We are more likely to give deference to things we don't understand — like the spiritual life of trees, or the vulnerability of babies — if we operate out of respect and humility rather than arrogance.
Easy to write, hard to practice.
Every day we face evil, destruction, and pain. This year I faced some of the deepest pain and fear I could imagine when we discovered my husband's metastatic cancer. The pesticides my husband used as a teenage farmhand and the dioxin in our meat are among the possible causes of his cancer.
When we came home from his surgery, the pesticide season was in full swing here in North Dakota. My garden was damaged by herbicide drift. The salamanders, a primary food of the white pelicans that nest in our county, had a massive die-off.
Sometimes it has been more than I can bear.
What happened to love? To goodness?
It is still here, all around me. The guardians I began meeting in my dreams, way back in my archaeology days, have made their appearances. Their claws and jaws, wings and tails protect me. I receive the comfort of many friends of many species. Even the northern lights and my husband's sweet snore provide the certain knowledge that we are in this together. I am not alone. I am part of the great Communion.
Verdi wrote a glorious chorus in La Traviata: Amor e palpito dell'universo intero — love is the pulse of the entire universe. I want to dance to that rhythm. And I want to dance with many, many partners.